Sunday, July 10, 2011

Reason I'm Leaving #8: Endless Criticism and the Quest for "Perfection"

I've been working on this post for awhile, but can't seem to make it crystallize around a really salient take-home point that's any catchier than "I'm tired of the endless review/criticism cycle and quest for an unattainable level of perfection in one's academic work." Man, how jargony is that???

But yeah, that's how I feel. It's not that I can't handle criticism. I'm just damned tired of the never-ending cycle of reviews and criticism in academia, and of the quest for a level of perfection in one's work that is impossible to obtain. I'm tired of the expectation that academics have to treat every piece of criticism from any source with reverence. And I'm tired of the mythical notion that any work one produces will ever (or could ever) be perfect to all readers.

Even though I can't come up with a catchy title for it, I'm saying it: I'm tired of the work cycle of academic research - its criticism and its unrealistic expectations.

I've spent a little bit of time this week on the last paper I was working on before I decided to leave academia. It's a paper that was somewhat recently rejected from a journal (I wrote about it here) ... and even though I'm leaving, I really do want to get it revised and sent to a different journal. I think it's a good and important paper, and since I won't be chasing an academic job, I don't care if it winds up in a less prestigious journal - it's just the kind of piece I'd like to have out there as my academic swan song. So, I'm working on it.

While revising it, I looked back at the peer reviews I got from the journal that rejected it. I found some of the comments to be helpful, and some not as helpful. I addressed the criticisms I agreed with and ignored the ones I thought were, frankly, bullsh*t criticisms coming from people who didn't really understand what I was trying to do with the paper. I emailed it to a couple of my academic colleagues for feedback last night - I'm going to deal with whatever criticisms they raise that I think have merit, and will probably ignore about half of them as irrelevant, and will send it off. And we'll see what happens.

Perhaps it will get published, or perhaps these new reviewers will come back with another set of critiques, which might be completely different from (or even contradict) the previous reviews I've gotten. That wouldn't be unusual. Given that I'm leaving academia, I'm not that stressed out about it.

But a few years ago, as a good little grad student? I would have been obsessed with making sure I'd addressed every single criticism from every reviewer and colleague; trying in vain to address every single one of the often conflicting or irrelevant criticisms in a manuscript that was already running a little long. Because the norm in academic work is to assume three things: (1) every criticism of your work is legitimate, (2) everyone knows enough about your subfield and specific research project to intelligently criticize it, and (3) that it's possible to get your work to a point where it is utterly perfect and beyond criticism.

A few days ago, I ran into a fellow graduate student who is earlier in the program than I am/was. I asked how s/he was doing, and s/he started talking about how frustrated s/he was with the reviews on a paper that s/he had been working on for more than three years. S/he told me (paraphrasing): "My advisor gave me a whole set of reviews, but then Professor X saw it and thought I should cite this other body of work, so I spent all this time reading that work and adding it into the lit review. But then Professor Y told me I should take it out as irrelevant! So I sent it out for review, and the peer reviewers told me that I hadn't cited enough articles by Professor Q (who is a bigwig in our subfield but doesn't do work directly related to my colleague's research), and that they wanted me to change my methods. But my advisor thinks that the methods I use are far superior so I should just do supplemental analyses rather than changing it. So I have so much work to do to address all of the reviews!!"

I call bullcrap on the whole thing. Not on research, or journals, or even on peer review. But on the way the whole system works together to create an endless cycle of criticism, revision, and conflicting advice, which students feel like they have to follow in some endless and futile quest for the "perfect journal article" that will please everyone.

It's a cycle that leads to frustration, stress over how long it takes to "finish" a given project, lowered self-esteem from the unending criticism, and ultimately disappointment ... because your work will never - never! - be so good that no one, anywhere, has anything critical to say about it.

And that's okay, for two reasons: (1) if you never stop giving your papers to other people and asking them for "comments," no one will ever give it back to you without any. If you ask for criticism, the reader is going to feel like they have to offer some critique. Think about it - how often have you handed back someone else's paper without a single comment on it? I'm betting ... never. So just relax and quit thinking that every single criticism means that your paper is worthless.

And (2)? Guess what?? Nothing you, or anyone else, will ever produce in your work or personal life is absolutely perfect with no room for improvement, in someone's opinion. And that's okay.

But as for me? This is one of the reasons I'm going to leave the academic world. I want a job where everyone does the best they can, and (in theory) everyone produces the best work they are capable of, with the understanding that nothing is perfect but that producing work and completing tasks in a timely fashion is worthwhile. I'm done spending months and years trying to write a paper that addresses every potential criticism and that will please everyone. Such a thing is impossible, and it was driving me crazy to be part of that system. Academia makes the perfect the enemy of the good. And I need a job where "good" work that gets completed - yes, completed! - in a timely fashion is good enough.


  1. Congrats on deciding what you want to do and going for it. AND for deciding that you are going to publish that paper because it is important and needs to be out there.

    That said, I am saddened that you have not been advised better and that you and other graduate students get the impression that you are expected to address every single piece of criticism and create a perfect piece of work that meets the needs of all potential readers. I have no doubt that there are tenured and tenure-track people who believe that but I suspect those are the ones who are most stressed and struggling.

    The key to the transition from student to academic is developing the ability to make your own decisions and to use criticism to improve your scholarship. That means taking what helps and ignoring what misses the point. The only thing you really need to do with criticism that misses the point is ask yourself whether your point could be clearer or whether this person wants to see what he wants to see regardless.

    This post is evidence that you've made that transition. And that transition in how you deal with criticism will serve you well wherever you end up. I wish you well in the search for meaningful work. You clearly have a lot to offer.

  2. I have just found this post by doing a Google search with the keywords "criticism of academia," for very much the same reasons explained on your blog. Unfortunately, this is but my first semester in my PhD program and am discovering EXACTLY what you have described is the issue. In my lifetime, I have met many an idiot with a PhD, and now I know why. Also, the frustration goes beyond the criticism and unrealistic expectations to the fact that I find that such a model does little, if anything, to solve real-world problems. I'm in a program that has some critical global issues to contend with, and in my naive mind I thought I would somehow use what I can get out of the program (presumably "knowledge") to actually help solve or mitigate some of the problems. I now realize that academia is not interested in such things. And although this is my perspective, I stand by it using no reference to any academic "elite."